Have you ever noticed that the high school and college guys in the gym with 13-inch arms always have the biggest selection of bicep exercises? I must admit, when I first began, I was fascinated with the bodybuilding magazines and was convinced I had to train just like the pros did. Many beginners, including myself, get sucked into the training styles of the people they look up to and fail to capitalize on their beginner status. Here is a hypertrophy hierarchy with example programs, time frames, and goals for each tier. The idea is to build a foundation of strength, then learn how to perfect exercise execution and maximize muscular contraction before moving on to the more advanced training methods. Take a look.

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The foundation for any type of physique improvement is going to be strength. This isn’t to say that max strength is THE most important component to building muscle, but the foundation must be laid if hypertrophy is going to be maximized later on. An increase in strength allows greater loads (i.e. greater stress) to be placed on the body and in turn the body will be forced to adapt in a multitude of ways to better handle that stress the next time it comes across it. During this period, the focus should be placed on building strength in the major compound movements. This increase in strength will transfer to the isolation movements that come later on. For example, we can assume that someone who can squat 500 pounds can probably do leg extensions with an appreciable amount of weight but it doesn’t necessarily work back the other direction.

Laying the strength foundation will lead to greater hypertrophy improvements down the road.

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Sample Strength Day

  • Squat 3x5
  • Bench 3x5
  • Dips 50 Total
  • Pullups 50 total
  • GHR 50 total


  • 2x bodyweight squat
  • 1.5x bodyweight bench
  • 2x bodyweight deadlift

Time Frame

  • 6-18 months

Exercise Perfection

Once a foundation of strength in the major movements is laid, you can add in more isolation movements to evenly target all the different body parts. During this phase the goal is to maximize the mind-muscle connection. You are trying to “perfect” the feel involved with doing hypertrophy type training. This feeling is learning to place the load on the intended muscle and to allow the muscular contraction to cause the movement. You are trying to learn to contract the weight through the range of motion instead of just moving it from point A to point B. During this phase you will add in more isolation work and start doing different split variations. The set and rep ranges won’t be anything too crazy and we won’t be using any intensity techniques like in the next phase. Instead, we will slowly rotate in new exercises in similar rep ranges but only after the technique and mind muscle connection on each exercise has been perfected.

Sample Exercise Perfection Leg Day

  • Laying Leg Curls 3x10
  • Squats 4x8
  • Leg Press 3x15
  • Leg Extensions 3x20
  • RDLs 3x15
  • Standing Calf Raises 3x12


  • Technique perfection, learn to isolate and maximally contract target muscle groups

Time Frame

  • 2-3 years

Exercise Manipulation

With a solid strength foundation and a solid mind muscle connection, now you can start doing the fun stuff. During this phase the goal is to continue to find new ways to maximally stimulate your muscles. Throw in different intensity techniques like drop sets, rest pause sets, and partials. Start doing all the different exercise variations beyond the basic movements and machines. Follow Shelby Starnes, John Meadows, and Mark Dugdale and check out how they’ve manipulated different exercise to maximize their effects. Use different splits and try things like HFT, DC Training, Fortitude Training, etc. This is your final tier on the hypertrophy hierarchy tier, so learn how to explore every possibility.

MORE: 5 Protocols to Build Bigger, Stronger Legs

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Sample Exercise Manipulation Leg Day

  • Single Leg Laying Leg Curls 3x10 with a three-count partner assisted negative. After your last set do 25 partials.
  • Low Stance Leg Press 4x20 reps. Don’t lock these out, focus on flexing your VMO hard, and after your last set of 20, do two drop sets to failure.
  • Squats 8x8, work up to a moderate set of 8 reps and do 8 total sets with this weight.
  • Leg Extensions 1x50. Immediately after doing your last set of squats, go to the leg extensions and do 10 reps, add weight and do another 10, add weight and do another 10, until you have done 50 total reps.
  • DB RDLs 3x10. Do these one-and-a-half rep style with the half rep coming from the bottom portion of the movement. Keep tension on the hamstring the whole time. Superset these with a 15-second isometric hold in a russian lean position.


Maximize exercise manipulation to ensure continual hypertrophy beyond the beginner gains and explore different training methods not utilized before.

Time Frame

  • Unlimited

Looking back, I really wish I had followed a similar template as the one laid out above instead of jumping right into the programs I saw in magazines and videos. I wasted a lot of time swinging lateral raises and using too much momentum on pull downs before I actually learned the correct way to train. Luckily, you don't have to make those same mistakes. Follow this hypertrophy hierarchy and you’ll be on your way to mounds of muscle in no time.

Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Sygo at